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Videoconferencing: Big whoop or big flop?

The latest killer app is supposed to be videoconferencing. I'm sure that there must be an echo in my office, 'cause I swear I've heard that one before.

Read about Greg

I just love killer apps. I especially love the sound they make when they hit reality. It's the same sound that a tree makes when it falls in the forest and no one is listening.

And the latest killer app is supposed to be videoconferencing. I'm sure that there must be an echo in my office, 'cause I swear I've heard that one before.

Videoconferencing has been around for many years. I first got involved in a project around 1997 or thereabouts. To be honest, the technology was clunky, hard to use and not great quality, but it did work. In those days they used a proprietary bonding of ISDN lines to do it and every vendor was different (of course). You could choose to have 128k, 256k or 384k with a rise in image quality.

For some reason, videoconferencing vendors have stubbornly resisted using IP to carry packets. I think I can understand why. There are not many network people in the real world who have a good grip on quality of service (QoS). (Caveat: "not many" means less than 10%, which means a whole lot of you do know something about it). I wonder how many IP videoconferencing solutions have foundered on a network that has poor QoS capabilities.

But lately, the router vendors and appliance people have come up with some really good QoS solutions. I had a good look at some of the IP-based videoconferencing recently and it looks good. It might even be ready for prime time.

But I can't believe it is ever going to take off.

I think that videoconferencing might be used in a couple of vertical markets, like the legal and medical industries, where face-to-face contact is reasonably important. Some really big companies will deploy it to save on travel, but it won't be used much unless people make it a part of their daily routine.

But for everyone else, the phone will rule. Noone wants to go through the hassle of setting up a videoconference when there is a perfectly good phone on their desk. Culturally, there are several hurdles to overcome. First, it's the travel martyrs. You know the ones...

Martyr: Can we make that appointment for Friday instead? I just have to slip over to Oodnadatta for an update on the project.
Dr. Network: Uh huh.
Martyr: Yeah. These red eye flights are a real killer, but think of the frequent flyer points.
Dr. Network: Uh huh.
Martyr: Best to have these meetings in person, I reckon. Plus the hotel I'm staying has the best steak that I ever tasted.
Dr. Network: Uh huh.

The travel martyr continues droning on and on about how important they are and how many frequent flyer points they have. In the next breath, they're telling you how they are sacrificing themselves for the good of the company.

The second hurdle is the special requirements for a videoconferencing setup. If you want really good (and I mean really good) results from a low bandwidth videoconference, you need a special room. That room should have sound deadening properties, be neutrally colored (usually specific shades of blue), and have special lighting to highlight human flesh colors. It also should have custom furniture to accommodate the televisions and cameras. Of course, getting the management to approve that kind of expenditure is a bit tough (hah, impossible!!), not to mention allocating expensive real estate for one purpose.

It is possible just to use a webcam on your computer. But no one ever does, because the video and sound quality is not good. Or at least, not good enough to make it worthwhile.

The third hurdle is the learning curve. Now, some vendors have done a good job making their systems easier to use. But let's face it, the bulk of users just don't care about technology and won't take five minutes to learn the simplest of things. Trying to teach them how to optimize a videoconferencing session is like asking Britney Spears to do math.

The fourth hurdle is the poor quality of salespeople that sell the products. The reps always think that because they can use the videoconferencing product they know all about it. Yet they have very little understanding of an integrated voice and data network and how reluctant we are to add more ISDN links and another network to our system.

Since Sept. 11, a lot of folks have been saying that this is the year of videoconferencing. Again.

I have been hearing that for at least seven years and it hasn't happened. It isn't going happen this year either.

Meet searchNetworking's Network Administration expert, Greg Ferro.

Do you agree with Greg? Are you using videoconferencing technology in your company? Let him know in the Dr. Network Forum.

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